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India’s Antipathy: The lonesome fight of women with disabilities for dignity

By Avinash Shahi

The sexual assaults faced by the disabled women are followed by an eerie silence. Owing to erroneous labeling of disabled women as ‘asexual’, the indignities inflicted upon them remain invisible. In a conservative country such as India, the subjects of sexuality and disability are alien to the ‘mainstream’ discourses, particularly in rural India. In the quest of safeguarding family honor, the practitioners of patriarchy refrain from addressing, let alone acknowledging, the violence and sexual assault experienced by disabled women within the family and in the public domain.

According to sociologist Rajendra Pandey,

Elevated in rhetoric, crushed in facts, women have for too long been victim of men’s many tyrannical cruelties and injustices. Causing carnal catastrophe is one of the most demeaning devices men have adopted to smother and subjugate women and thereby sustain their own superiority.

Susan Griffin, an American feminist, had raised some very pertinent questions which are worth reiterating: ‘how does the victim feel when the rape is just about to take place? What goes on in her mind when the rape is taking place? If she survives to articulate about it what are her feelings afterward’? I further wonder what if the rape survivor is deaf-blind, someone who would find it difficult to identify her assaulter during the trial in Court? The sensitization on good or bad touch is non-existent in India which makes the lives of deafblind women vulnerable. Sexual assault on a woman not only violates her bodily integrity – the emotional scars that she endures are impossible to comprehend. Apart from inflicting violence on a woman’s body, the assaulter destroys the victim’s sense of self-determination and undermines her integrity as a person. If the victim happens to be a disabled woman, her helplessness is more profound. She neither gets support from the family members and the police often refuse to register First Information Report (FIR). It is an established truth that rape is a traumatic experience which shakes the foundations of a survivor’s life and has huge social and psychological ramifications that largely remain unnoticed by the state and the civil society.

Recently on 25 June 2016, I attended a daylong workshop organized by the New Delhi-based Centre for Women’s Development Studies (CWDS) in collaboration with the All India Confederation of the Blind (AICB) an NGO working for the blind in the country. The workshop was centred on the theme ‘Creating bridges between visually challenged women and the Women’s Movement’. A number of adult blind girls shared their personal experiences of how people in general remained mere spectators in broad daylight while they were subjected to harassment and molestation in the public places. A confident and articulate partially-blind girl from Mumbai narrated her nerve-wracking experience of molestation which she confronted in a local train in December 2015.

‘Around 1.40 pm, when I was waiting for a Borivli local at Khar station, an unknown man tried to strike up a conversation with me. He proposed to me and said ‘I love you’. I made it clear to him that I was not interested in talking to him. When I was about to board the train, he told me that the coach for handicapped people was slightly ahead. The person accompanied me to the coach and sat very close to me and began to hold my hand. The person said his name was Amit. He asked me about my father and insisted on marrying me. Since he continued to pester, I lifted my cane and began hitting him. I also shouted for help but no other commuter came forward to assist me.

She did not give up and resisted his advances to the best of her strength. A day later, with the help of her colleagues in the office where she worked as part timer, she brought the issue to the attention of the national media. It forced the Government Railway Police (GRP) to register an First Information Report (FIR) and commence the investigation. Owing to her persistent pursuance of the complaint, the police with the help of CCTV clues nabbed the man in February 2016. The workshop attendees from other women organizations were shocked to hear the personal accounts of the blind women. Many among them acknowledged the existing gap between the women’s movement in India and the indifference towards understanding the nuances of disabled women’s daily ordeal. The participants unanimously emphasized to engage on a regular basis to broaden the heterogeneous character of the women’s movement in India.

The psychological and emotional toll is immense on disabled women rape survivors in India. Depression, helplessness and neglect from the family are quite rampant. There is hardly any substantial support provided by the state to such survivors. Majority of the NGOs working in the disability sector are based in metro cities such as Delhi and Mumbai. A handful of them are engaged in advocacy related to sexual harassment cases. As a consequence, the abuse and violence faced by women with disabilities residing in the country’s backwaters remains unheard and are swept under the carpet. It is not a secret that strong dominance of patriarchal power is so systemic in its manifestation that all women perpetually suffer from the fear of being raped.

In the social sphere, rape is basically a social problem of great magnitude. Rape has a huge social repercussion for a rape survivor and for the society. On the victim’s side, the ramification of rape depends on factors like whether she is a child or adult and whether she is married or unmarried. If a rape victim happens to be unmarried it becomes difficult for her to get married. If the rape becomes public and she is already married, then there is greater possibility that her marriage will break.  And further if marriage of the unmarried woman is solemnized, the sword of fear of the rape being divulged, and the marriage getting dissolved, always looms large in survivors’ mind. The gravity of the impact of rape experienced by the survivor varies based upon whether the survivor is a child, or an adult. It is pertinent to mention here not only that the gravity of bodily pain due to rape varies based on the age group of the survivor, the social and psychological repercussions can never be truly captured.

It is not surprising that the cases of Disabled women who bear the brunt of sexual assault seldom reach the Courts. Saptarshi Mandal in a seminal paper “The Burden of Intelligibility: Disabled Women’s Testimony in Rape Trials” (2013) found  that the ‘testimony of the disabled prosecutrix is devalued and disregarded through a combination of evidentiary, doctrinal and ideological practices inscribed under the law’. However, the Supreme Court’s recent judgment on 11 February 2016 is a silver lining for disabled rape survivors. In Tekan alias Tekarm vs. State of Madhya Pradesh (Now Chhattisgarh) CRIMINAL APPEAL NO. 884 OF 2015, the prosecutrix was a blind, non-literate girl who was subjected to sexual intercourse with the promise of marriage. Whenever the prosecutrix remained alone in the house, the accused used to come and have sexual intercourse with her. By such course of action, when the prosecutrix became pregnant, the prosecutrix told the accused to marry her. At that point of time, the accused stopped visiting the house of the prosecutrix. The Apex Court while dismissing the appeal against the conviction of the accused categorically affirmed,

‘The victim, being in a vulnerable position and who is not being taken care of by anyone and having no family to support her either emotionally or economically, we are not ordering the respondent-State to give her any lump sum amount as compensation for rehabilitation as she is not in a position to keep and manage the lump sum amount. From the records, it is evident that no one is taking care of her and she is living alone in her Village. Accordingly, we in the special facts of this case are directing the respondent-State to pay Rs.8,000/-per month till her life time, treating the same to be an interest fetched on a fixed deposit of Rs.10,00,000. By this, the State will not be required to pay any lump sum amount to the victim and this will also be in the interest of the victim.’

Given her vulnerable condition, this ruling proved to be a landmark judgment which entrusted the state to provide Rs 8,000 as monthly compensation till her lifetime. The judgment after perusing the compensation schemes run by the respective states and the union territories noted that the rape cases of disabled women should be dealt with keen sensitivity and all legal aid provided timely.

Among disabled women, those belonging to the Scheduled Caste and the Scheduled Tribes are the most disadvantaged. It is imperative that sexual exploitation experienced by disabled women at the grassroots level be addressed by the state, civil society and the media. The societal notion that disabled women are ‘asexual’ needs to be dispelled. Such labeling gravely accentuates their miseries. Disabled women are endowed with inherent dignity. Having ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), the Indian government is duty bound to ensure that the disabled women access public places and services without any inhibition and fear.

Avinash Shahi
is a doctoral Candidate at Centre for the Study of Law and Governance JNU. His PhD is on ‘Intimacy, Law and Disability: Living with labeled Identity’. His areas of interest include but not limited to disability policies and sexuality and disability.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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